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GameSpy Sees Room to Play

Merged With IGN, Firm Looks Beyond Its Original Bread and Butter

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; Page E01

Computer game developer Firaxis Games Inc. had already sold millions of copies of its Civilization series when the Baltimore area company decided it needed a new wrinkle.

The game, which lets players guide a budding nation from prehistoric times to the modern era, was normally played by one person against the computer. Firaxis wanted to get the game onto the Internet, so players could test their empire-building skills against one another.

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The company could have built the software and managed the network itself; instead, it turned to IGN/GameSpy. The company is famous for its video-game news sites such as gamespy.com but also offers software for game companies that want to let players set up tournaments online.

"It would have required a staff to develop the system and to maintain the system," said Patrick Dawson, a programmer with Firaxis. "Both are things we don't need when we have GameSpy."

Once the narrow province of hard-core gamers, sites such as GameSpy are growing in prominence as more and more computer games move onto the Internet. They are part of a synergistic universe of companies that are attempting to be the ESPN or TV Guide of the gaming industry.

IGN/GameSpy does this by being part Web publisher, part Internet matchmaker. Its network of 90 Web sites cranks out some 4,400 articles and reviews a month that pay microscopic attention to nearly every conceivable aspect of the industry. The company also provides an online arena where gamers are able to meet up and challenge one another and where fans can get free software updates and other extras.

The formula has had success. The company's sites see 19.7 million visitors a month, and more than 200,000 subscribers pay $7 a month or $60 a year for access to special features or files. The privately-owned IGN/GameSpy, born of a recent merger between onetime rivals, expects to collect revenue in the neighborhood of $50 million this year from its collection of online businesses.

The gaming business, though, is a competitive one, and business models are still in flux. Video console makers such as Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. have recently launched new online initiatives featuring their own machines. Meanwhile, other game companies have decided to build their own proprietary online worlds, taking on the expense of running vast networks of servers and staffing 24-hour help desks.

IGN/GameSpy, based in Brisbane, Calif., hopes to monetize the growing interest by providing an independent home for avid players. As such, it is one of the early pioneers. GameSpy has been online since 1996, the Stone Age of Internet gaming. In those days, getting online to play wasn't exactly a user-friendly process: Internet-connected fans could spend half an hour trying to find one another and a stable online match to join -- a byproduct of slow Internet connections and the occasional computer crash.

GameSpy remedied the problem by giving away a small piece of software that helped quickly line up players for online matches for a "shooter" game called Quake.

Quake was popular enough to create a community of obsessed fans. GameSpy's first site, called PlanetQuake, was just one of dozens or even hundreds of sites dedicated to the game -- but PlanetQuake found a place in the hearts, minds and Internet bookmark lists of gamers largely because of its software.

"We were uniquely successful because we brought the technology and the gameplay directly to the community," said David Wright, who dropped out of Stanford University to work for GameSpy after designing some of the most popular of online modifications to Quake. He now is responsible for the design of IGN/GameSpy's products as the company's chief architect.

The site became so hot that PlanetQuake added full-time "news guy" Dave Kosak among its small staff of gamers, who had met each other through Web sites and online games of Quake. Kosak is better known in video-game circles by his online handle "Fargo," under which he plays and writes columns for IGN/GameSpy's sites.

"There was a lot to download, a lot to do, a lot to talk about," Kosak said of those days. When some of the founders, and a couple of hundred other fans, met for the first time at a marathon Quake-playing session in New York City in 1997, Kosak wrote that it was "the Woodstock of my generation."

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